Ricochet Member Recommended FeedRecommended by R> Members

Morality and Efficacy in Leadership

 

Peter Robinson issued a writing challenge in Romney on Trump:

To what extent is Mitt Romney correct? [Romney asserted: “To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation.”]

I found myself turning back to questions of personal versus political morality or virtue. That brought back contrasts between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. On that pairing, I recalled a national talk show host claiming, in 2006, that personally morally upright men did not have what it took to do what good leaders must. This was a superficial riff on The Prince. My response at the time, spring of 2006, still seems fairly on point [clarifications in brackets]:

False dilemma. The problem is that the underpinnings that made Clinton “privately” immoral — all about self-centeredness and short-term gratification — also made him a disastrous president.

Play off the North Korea problem so you don’t have to deal with hard military/ diplomatic/ economic choices. President Bush comes along and finds the North Koreans with a bomb they weren’t supposed to have according to Clinton’s “solution.”

Tell your securities and white-collar crime investigators to not rock the boat and the good times keep rolling on shady deals and cooked books. President Bush comes in, and prosecutors start doing their jobs again, and we have the hit of corporate chieftains doing the perp walk as their stocks tank. [The Dot Com bubble burst. See also this leftist critique of Clinton’s economic mismanagement. See this Houston Chronicle report on white collar perp walks.]

Bomb an aspirin factory [Sudan] and a few empty tents [Afghanistan] instead of taking the hard decisions to put troops in harms way, cut and run when a few Americans get killed in combat you hoped they’d never face [Mogadishu] … the Left-activist base of your party doesn’t get upset … and then President Bush gets to deal with an emboldened global Islamofascism.

I think you can have a privately immoral man who is effective publicly — JFK comes to mind.

I think President Bush’s weakness is his excessive pride, stubbornness in the face of overwhelming evidence he is wrong. The “vigilante” comment [citizens embarrassing him by going to patrol the border themselves], Harriet Miers [the Supreme Court nominee conservatives forced Bush to withdraw], and the Dubai Ports veto threat [where a Dubai state-owned company was going to take over management of major U.S. ports] are all example of him shooting from the hip, unprepared by the staff that ought to have given him better advise, and then pridefully digging in his heels as he bleeds political capital. I suspect the core problem is that he is dealing with subordinates that are not team players, or that have their own teams playing for different goals — so he gets stranded or fails to act in specific instances consistent with the big ideas he expresses.

Published in Politics
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s growing community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 17 comments.

  1. Member

    Sometimes I think we’re too invested into the hero-mythology portion of leadership. Maybe no small part of that was the “Cincinnatus” aspect of Washington, but it really bloomed with Lincoln.

    And I don’t think it’s healthy.

    These men and women whom we elect to office are human, not gods. They’re not perfect, especially if you look look into what brought them into office.

    The best we can hope is that, on the balance, they make decisions that we prefer to the alternative. And we won’t even get that if they’re interested in staying in office, because the power of taxation makes it too easy to buy votes, so that’s what they do.

    Time and time again.

    I think Trump is a refreshing step in the right direction in this regard, and you see how that’s tipped the Establishment against him.

    • #1
    • January 9, 2019 at 12:52 am
    • 14 likes
  2. Member

    dnewlander (View Comment):
    dnewlander  

    Sometimes I think we’re too invested into the hero-mythology portion of leadership. Maybe no small part of that was the “Cincinnatus” aspect of Washington, but it really bloomed with Lincoln.

    That’s true in the American context but hero-mythologizing is a huge part of our political soul. The Romans, Egyptians and Chinese believed that the Emperor needed to be a decent and moral man in order to satisfy heaven and establish good fortune for the Kingdom. This problematic trait is probably deeply embedded in human nature and it would have come out in humanity one way or another. 

    • #2
    • January 9, 2019 at 2:56 am
    • 8 likes
  3. Coolidge

    dnewlander (View Comment):
    too invested into the hero-mythology portion of leadership

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Sometimes I think we’re too invested into the hero-mythology portion of leadership. Maybe no small part of that was the “Cincinnatus” aspect of Washington, but it really bloomed with Lincoln.

    And I don’t think it’s healthy.

    These men and women whom we elect to office are human, not gods. They’re not perfect, especially if you look look into what brought them into office.

    The best we can hope is that, on the balance, they make decisions that we prefer to the alternative. And we won’t even get that if they’re interested in staying in office, because the power of taxation makes it too easy to buy votes, so that’s what they do.

    Time and time again.

    I think Trump is a refreshing step in the right direction in this regard, and you see how that’s tipped the Establishment against him.

    We are absolutely “too invested into the hero-mythology portion of leadership” to our detriment. I do worry about the unintended consequences of swinging too far to the other end of the pendulum though.

    • #3
    • January 9, 2019 at 3:10 am
    • 6 likes
  4. Coolidge

    Clifford A. Brown:

     

    Bomb an aspirin factory [Sudan] and a few empty tents [Afghanistan] instead of taking the hard decisions to put troops in harms way, cut and run when a few Americans get killed in combat you hoped they’d never face [Mogadishu] … the Left-activist base of your party doesn’t get upset … and then President Bush gets to deal with an emboldened global Islamofascism.

     

    I love this and related topics, Clifford. The only problem with it is that I have so many thoughts on it I have a hard time coming up with something coherent to write down. Another related thread with Clinton/Bush comparisons suggesting President Clinton was immoral private but successful whereas President Bush was a man of great character but not successful had me thinking. It was a hard pill to swallow for many reasons but your Mogadishu example brings up the main (and most personal) reason I will never consider President Clinton a successful president.

    I volunteered for the Rangers in large part because of Mogadishu and made it to Regiment seven months later. I was privileged to be a young Ranger who knew and was influenced by the men there. Of course, President Clinton’s decision was widely discussed by everyone. Let me tell you, there wasn’t a single one of us I recall who didn’t despise President Clinton for that decision. But it was more than just not letting us finish the job; many were well aware of the consequences. That was confirmed in 1998 when Osama bin Laden told an ABC reporter in his own words that he knew at that moment we withdrew from Somalia we were paper tigers and they could and would defeat us. I think it had terrible consequences that extends beyond just Islamofascism today. The world, allies and enemies, watch what we do and don’t do. What a wasted time the 90s were due to President Clinton’s moral cowardice mixed with a whole lot hubris in relations with others. We could have been a respected superpower instead of hated by most.

    • #4
    • January 9, 2019 at 3:14 am
    • 9 likes
  5. Member

    In these times I believe we are witnessing a kind of morality by proxy. The left has declared that the personal is political, but that allows for the ideas to flow in the other direction: the political is the personal.

    To simplify – people are treating their vote, and the votes of others, as moral markers of virtue or sin. 

    Too much emphasis on this idea ultimately results in granting oneself full or partial absolution for personal moral failings because of one’s political ideals, actions and dreams for a utopian future. Note the first reaction of Harvey Weinstein to the exploitation charges, as well as other left-leaning transgressors: a virtue-declaration of present and now renewed resolve to tackle the meta-problem in the political realm. This was also evident throughout the Clinton years of granting Bill personal clemency because he was assured to work for the cause.

    The decline and virtual absence of religion facilitates these notions. Most (all?) religions codify morality but assign responsibility onto the individual, and caution believers to refrain from judgement of others and incorporate a mechanism for forgiveness. Little to none of that is present in the world of secular political morality which becomes the default when religion is absent.

    The congregation in the leftist default religion will tolerate personal failings as long as the politician executes the agreed-upon plan.

    This is, in part, why some conservatives are so incensed about Trump. They believe their own ‘side’ is operating the same way.

    I don’t agree that it’s the same, however. 

    This might be better expressed in another comment, but basically many believe we should be personally accountable to God and that we are all flawed or ‘fallen’ and are not in a good position to judge others ( besides this being detrimental to oneself and everyone else) . 

     

    • #5
    • January 9, 2019 at 4:32 am
    • 11 likes
  6. Member

    Clinton was all photo ops and pretend. It’s just saffer to pretend unless inaction comes back to bite. On 9/11 it came back to bite George Bush not Clinton. However, this whole notion of activist presidents is highly problematical. Our liberal historians love it, so they embrace TR, Wilson, FDR, JFK and would have done the same with LBJ. In the long run it doesn’t work out well because they’re just men who exercise enormous power but are blind to most of the world and cannot in reality control very much. The result is always more pretend and the build up of the administrative state. Obama was the epitome of pretend and bureaucratic build up.

    • #6
    • January 9, 2019 at 4:42 am
    • 5 likes
  7. Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    The Romans, Egyptians and Chinese believed that the Emperor needed to be a decent and moral man in order to satisfy heaven and establish good fortune for the Kingdom.

    Except… the Greeks and Romans filled heaven with despicable gods who kidnap women, start wars in fits of jealousy, and have a record of philandering that would make Trump blush.

    • #7
    • January 9, 2019 at 4:53 am
    • 8 likes
  8. Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Chris Hutchinson (View Comment):
    The world, allies and enemies, watch what we do and don’t do. What a wasted time the 90s were due to President Clinton’s moral cowardice mixed with a whole lot hubris in relations with others. We could have been a respected superpower instead of hated by most.

    You add more meat to the bones of the claim that who we choose as president matters a great deal. As I commented on another post:

    Clifford A. Brown

     

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    James Gawron:

    If you look closely at this list I think you will agree with me that Jonah has demonstrated his own unwavering pettiness. Trump meanwhile has produced 3+ percent growth, 3+ percent real wage growth, an American credible presence in foreign policy around the world so much so that haters of American power have begged him not to withdraw from one of his commitments, the end of Obamacare, the end of the Paris Accords, the end of the Iran Deal, the nomination and confirmation of truly conservative justices for the courts. In fact, Trump seems to be unwavering in his concern for the most significant things on his plate. It is Jonah’s list that appears petty even trivial in comparison.

    Exactly. As to the rest of the argument, I’m still sorting through what “moral” means in a national leader, one whose decisions or indecision can bring life or death, even disaster for the nation. Not disaster in the hyperventilating anti-Trump-and-his-Deplorables sense, but disaster in the sense of a nation militarily or economically devastated, defeated by forces outside and inside the nation.

    See @bossmongo‘s Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked for a flavor of the possibilities in our own country in our own time.

     

    • #8
    • January 9, 2019 at 4:58 am
    • 2 likes
  9. Member

    The Chinese (not western, fyi) worshipped their ancestors. Whatever hero-worship exists there would be in spite of their moral failings – not because of the absence of them.

    Mythologizing the real into the supernatural puts a culture built on enlightenment with human tendencies to mythologize at deep odds.

    The enlightenment says observable truth trumps fantasy but we still want to idolize our leaders. So how do you idolize without rejecting observable truth? By putting God on the throne. But you might find it a bit hard to find God among men at the moment…

    So we reject mythologizing imperfect men while seeking a perfect man to mythologize.

    But Washington and Lincoln were not perfect. JFK was not perfect. What we have is white-washed mythologizing or (in American parlance) legendizing and tall tales.

    • #9
    • January 9, 2019 at 5:01 am
    • 8 likes
  10. Member

    Franco (View Comment):

    In these times I believe we are witnessing a kind of morality by proxy. The left has declared that the personal is political, but that allows for the ideas to flow in the other direction: the political is the personal.

    To simplify – people are treating their vote, and the votes of others, as moral markers of virtue or sin.

    Too much emphasis on this idea ultimately results in granting oneself full or partial absolution for personal moral failings because of one’s political ideals, actions and dreams for a utopian future. Note the first reaction of Harvey Weinstein to the exploitation charges, as well as other left-leaning transgressors: a virtue-declaration of present and now renewed resolve to tackle the meta-problem in the political realm. This was also evident throughout the Clinton years of granting Bill personal clemency because he was assured to work for the cause.

    The decline and virtual absence of religion facilitates these notions. Most (all?) religions codify morality but assign responsibility onto the individual, and caution believers to refrain from judgement of others and incorporate a mechanism for forgiveness. Little to none of that is present in the world of secular political morality which becomes the default when religion is absent.

    The congregation in the leftist default religion will tolerate personal failings as long as the politician executes the agreed-upon plan.

    This is, in part, why some conservatives are so incensed about Trump. They believe their own ‘side’ is operating the same way.

    I don’t agree that it’s the same, however.

    This might be better expressed in another comment, but basically many believe we should be personally accountable to God and that we are all flawed or ‘fallen’ and are not in a good position to judge others ( besides this being detrimental to oneself and everyone else) .

     

    My goodness that is wonderful stuff. GREAT comment. 

    • #10
    • January 9, 2019 at 5:40 am
    • 5 likes
  11. Member

    Chris Hutchinson (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown:

     

    Bomb an aspirin factory [Sudan] and a few empty tents [Afghanistan] instead of taking the hard decisions to put troops in harms way, cut and run when a few Americans get killed in combat you hoped they’d never face [Mogadishu] … the Left-activist base of your party doesn’t get upset … and then President Bush gets to deal with an emboldened global Islamofascism.

     

    I love this and related topics, Clifford. The only problem with it is that I have so many thoughts on it I have a hard time coming up with something coherent to write down. Another related thread with Clinton/Bush comparisons suggesting President Clinton was immoral private but successful whereas President Bush was a man of great character but not successful had me thinking. It was a hard pill to swallow for many reasons but your Mogadishu example brings up the main (and most personal) reason I will never consider President Clinton a successful president.

    I volunteered for the Rangers in large part because of Mogadishu and made it to Regiment seven months later. I was privileged to be a young Ranger who knew and was influenced by the men there. Of course, President Clinton’s decision was widely discussed by everyone. Let me tell you, there wasn’t a single one of us I recall who didn’t despise President Clinton for that decision. But it was more than just not letting us finish the job; many were well aware of the consequences. That was confirmed in 1998 when Osama bin Laden told an ABC reporter in his own words that he knew at that moment we withdrew from Somalia we were paper tigers and they could and would defeat us. I think it had terrible consequences that extends beyond just Islamofascism today. The world, allies and enemies, watch what we do and don’t do. What a wasted time the 90s were due to President Clinton’s moral cowardice mixed with a whole lot hubris in relations with others. We could have been a respected superpower instead of hated by most.

    Indeed, character matters. Unlike my too-young self in the 90’s, though, now I don’t think it’s the only thing that matters or even always the most important thing. I think that now partly because history has shown countless men of bad character who were nevertheless good leaders and statesmen; also true that men of good character can be bad leaders and ineffective statesmen. It’s rare when we get the sweet spot of good character combined with excellent leadership – which is why people like Washington and Lincoln (themselves not as perfect as the cherry tree story or the walking miles to return three cents story) are so outstanding and enduring in legacy. 

    • #11
    • January 9, 2019 at 7:09 am
    • 3 likes
  12. Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Ed G. (View Comment):

    Chris Hutchinson (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown:

     

    Bomb an aspirin factory [Sudan] and a few empty tents [Afghanistan] instead of taking the hard decisions to put troops in harms way, cut and run when a few Americans get killed in combat you hoped they’d never face [Mogadishu] … the Left-activist base of your party doesn’t get upset … and then President Bush gets to deal with an emboldened global Islamofascism.

     

    I love this and related topics, Clifford. The only problem with it is that I have so many thoughts on it I have a hard time coming up with something coherent to write down. Another related thread with Clinton/Bush comparisons suggesting President Clinton was immoral private but successful whereas President Bush was a man of great character but not successful had me thinking. It was a hard pill to swallow for many reasons but your Mogadishu example brings up the main (and most personal) reason I will never consider President Clinton a successful president.

    I volunteered for the Rangers in large part because of Mogadishu and made it to Regiment seven months later. I was privileged to be a young Ranger who knew and was influenced by the men there. Of course, President Clinton’s decision was widely discussed by everyone. Let me tell you, there wasn’t a single one of us I recall who didn’t despise President Clinton for that decision. But it was more than just not letting us finish the job; many were well aware of the consequences. That was confirmed in 1998 when Osama bin Laden told an ABC reporter in his own words that he knew at that moment we withdrew from Somalia we were paper tigers and they could and would defeat us. I think it had terrible consequences that extends beyond just Islamofascism today. The world, allies and enemies, watch what we do and don’t do. What a wasted time the 90s were due to President Clinton’s moral cowardice mixed with a whole lot hubris in relations with others. We could have been a respected superpower instead of hated by most.

    Indeed, character matters. Unlike my too-young self in the 90’s, though, now I don’t think it’s the only thing that matters or even always the most important thing. I think that now partly because history has shown countless men of bad character who were nevertheless good leaders and statesmen; also true that men of good character can be bad leaders and ineffective statesmen. It’s rare when we get the sweet spot of good character combined with excellent leadership – which is why people like Washington and Lincoln (themselves not as perfect as the cherry tree story or the walking miles to return three cents story) are so outstanding and enduring in legacy.

    I think that we mis-specify “character,” where we need to be looking at attributes applied to attaining and executing the office. Maybe we should specify “{good, bad} leadership character.”

    • #12
    • January 9, 2019 at 7:20 am
    • 4 likes
  13. Member

    I think our definition of “good character” has changed. We’ve added some things and subtracted others.

    Mitt Romney isn’t necessarily wrong about Trump’s character flaws. He’s just out of date. We don’t evaluate character the way we did years ago.

    Years ago Trump’s infidelity to his first wife would be a deficit in how we formulated our opinion of Trump’s character. In fact, that may be why Trump isn’t as unforgiving about Romney’s remarks as some would expect him to be. Trump is acutely aware of how others see him, and he may have kept out of political life because of his conduct in his first marriage. I find men to be very hard on themselves and to be their own worst judges. :-)

    Today we look at divorce and infidelity quite differently. We are more concerned with how people handle their post-divorce relationships and responsibilities. And in those respects, Trump gets an unqualified A. :-)

    Redefining goodness has been an ongoing human project throughout all of recorded history.

    What makes American politics so impressive is its inherent flexibility. It is a marketplace for ideas, and we can adapt to the times. That is the source of our strength, and it always has been.

    • #13
    • January 9, 2019 at 8:09 am
    • 1 like
  14. Coolidge

    Due to my misreading of @chrishutch13 comment above, I have deleted mine.

    • #14
    • January 9, 2019 at 11:58 am
    • Like
  15. Coolidge

    I don’t want to speak for others and I don’t want anyone speaking for me.

    I don’t grant any politician license to be a symbol of my character. I can say with confidence that I don’t much like any of them.

    I don’t grant the premise that people can be represented in such a way. I vote for them to represent me in politics, not in morality.

    • #15
    • January 9, 2019 at 3:37 pm
    • 4 likes
  16. Member

    Skylar is right. I vote for political reasons not moral ones. My heroes are rarely human and often dead. 

     

    • #16
    • January 9, 2019 at 4:41 pm
    • 4 likes
  17. Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    MarciN (View Comment):

    I think our definition of “good character” has changed. We’ve added some things and subtracted others.

    Mitt Romney isn’t necessarily wrong about Trump’s character flaws. He’s just out of date. We don’t evaluate character the way we did years ago.

    Years ago Trump’s infidelity to his first wife would be a deficit in how we formulated our opinion of Trump’s character. In fact, that may be why Trump isn’t as unforgiving about Romney’s remarks as some would expect him to be. Trump is acutely aware of how others see him, and he may have kept out of political life because of his conduct in his first marriage. I find men to be very hard on themselves and to be their own worst judges. :-)

    Today we look at divorce and infidelity quite differently. We are more concerned with how people handle their post-divorce relationships and responsibilities. And in those respects, Trump gets an unqualified A. :-)

    Redefining goodness has been an ongoing human project throughout all of recorded history.

    What makes American politics so impressive is its inherent flexibility. It is a marketplace for ideas, and we can adapt to the times. That is the source of our strength, and it always has been.

    I think Machiavelli might disagree, as might Aristotle. Each set about defining or describing the rules that rulers should follow, if the state, the polis, is to survive and prosper. If “goodness” and “character” are not weaponized to promote or deny entry to leadership, perhaps there are some very long standing, long known, leader/ruler virtues.

    • #17
    • January 9, 2019 at 9:40 pm
    • 1 like